Manipal, India — Since the 1980s, about six years after Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq took control from Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, the Pakistan army has been less a symbol of national unity than an instrument to ensure the supremacy of the Punjabi element in all reaches of Pakistan society.
Today, the army is replicating in the northwestern frontier what has always been the case in Baluchistan and Sindh -- frank control over local government through the use of bullets. Although the Pashtun and Baloch elements have been allowed some representation within the officer corps, ultimately it is the Punjabi element that decides policy.
Since2003, when they turned against Pervez Musharraf because of the Pakistan coup master's proclivity to cling to his post as Chief of Army Staff, the Punjabi element has moved closer to China, countering moves by Musharraf to align his country firmly with the United States in the ongoing War on Terror. From 2003 onwards, under cover of the need to confront Indian control in Kashmir, they have continued to give assistance to the jihadis. They have blocked U.S. moves to get the Pakistan army to mount an effective defense against the Taliban sheltering in almost every city in Pakistan, including Islamabad, where a cluster has set up base about five miles from the U.S. Embassy complex.
The twice deposed (but still legal) Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftekhar Chowdhury, would never have found the backbone to challenge the dictator of Pakistan had it not been for the clandestine backing he has received from Punjabi elements within the Pakistan army. They have been open in their desperation to see the last of Musharraf, after the failure of the (predicted) December 2003 assassination attempts against the general who had been lawfully sacked by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif -- a Punjabi professing to be Kashmiri.
Had elections taken place early next year, Nawaz Sharif would have defeated the U.S.-backed Turko-Sindhi politician Benazir Bhutto with ease. She is unpopular outside her home province for her apparent devotion to U.S. interests and her frequent about-turns on policy and affiliations, the most recent being the abandonment of Nawaz Sharif for Musharraf. Her ease in the civilized locales of Georgetown has caused smitten U.S. officials to see her as the Great Pink Hope of Pakistan. It is a role she last played in the 1990s when as prime minister she implemented the Clinton administration's policy of backing the Taliban, from 1993 to the militia's takeover of Kabul in 1996. The blowback was made manifest on Sept. 11, 2001.
Interestingly, U.S. officials such as Zalmay Khalilzad and Robin Raphel, who were most active in supporting the Taliban, today enjoy the confidence of both President George Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, who are known for their generosity of spirit. This quality is made evident by their sportingly awarding the country's highest civilian distinction to Paul Bremer for his invaluable contribution to international jihad. This would have been the 1930s equivalent of making Neville Chamberlain a duke.
By backing Benazir Bhutto, the United States has unintentionally been dragged into the heart of the ongoing civil conflict in Pakistan, where the Punjabis are working with admirable stealth as well as strength of purpose to re-establish control by boxing in or eliminating altogether Pervez Musharraf.
China's canny People's Liberation Army, backed by Hu Jintao, has replaced the United States as the primary influence over the Punjabi element within the Pakistan army. This team is seeking the return to office of Nawaz Sharif, whose people in Pakistan are in close touch with them.
The odds are low that Musharraf will succeed in his efforts to remain in office. The weeks ahead are likely to witness a silent coup against the U.S. ally -- which could force him not only out of uniform, but out of politics altogether -- and the return to office of Nawaz Sharif after a general election.
Benazir Bhutto, if she survives, is likely to find that the United States, unlike in the 1970s, is no longer the only player in Islamabad. Indeed, these days it is not even the dominant player. The center of gravity has shifted to Beijing, and this is going to have severe repercussions in a geopolitical environment where a Baghdad-Tehran axis as a counter to the uneasy combo between Istanbul and Riyadh seems imminent.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)